Social Science Series #9: Emotional support for parents of children with cancer


The diagnosis and treatment of cancer can be a stressful situation, not only for the children undergoing treatment but also for their parents and caregivers. Indeed, childhood cancer is life-changing news for any family, leading to uncertainty about what the recovery path will be. Parents need to focus not only on the emotional and physical changes that the children facing the disease will encounter, but also need to pay attention to their own stability and that of other family members. Emotional support for parents of children with cancer is crucial in this context, as it provides them with the necessary support to cope with the various emotional consequences that may arise during the treatment and recovery process. From constant anxiety and worry to depression and emotional exhaustion, parents experience a roller coaster of emotions that require attention and understanding. This article explores the importance of emotional support, as well as ways in which they can be helped to address the emotional consequences and find the strength to support their children in their battle against cancer.

What role do parents play in the care of children with cancer?

Parents play a critical role in the recovery of their children; their support and active participation can be seen in various ways:

  • Medical support: Parents should be in constant communication with the medical team, ensuring that their child is receiving the best quality medical care. They are usually also in charge of administering medication, coordinating medical appointments, and following treatment guidelines. Additionally, parents ensure that a proper routine is established to ensure the child’s nutritional, sleeping, and personal hygiene. Parents are constantly monitoring the child’s response to treatment and should be equipped to know how to recognize and manage the various situations the child may encounter.
  • Emotional support: Parents play a vital role in providing strong emotional support to their children during their treatment. Their constant presence is fundamental in helping the child cope with stress and maintain a positive attitude. Parents encourage children to follow their treatment plan and promote a positive mindset about recovery. They are a good source of information and comfort, to help children better understand their diagnosis and treatment progress. This communication helps children cope with their treatment and feel more ownership of their own situation. Being able to validate a child’s emotions and experience is also vital, by creating a non-judgmental environment for the child, it is easier for them to express themselves and build together healthy coping strategies.
  • Self-care: Supporting children also involves parents taking proper care of themselves. Parents’ physical and mental well-being will be reflected in their ability to support their children’s recovery process. It is important for them to remember that taking care of themselves is essential to keep their body and mind strong. Preventing burnout by taking take of their emotional and physical stability will allow them to be available for the child and for any siblings. This can also serve as role modeling for children, as it is a guidance on the importance of prioritizing self-care.


Source: Meaningful Work, 2022

What are the psychological effects of childhood cancer on parents?

Parents may face multiple emotional effects following a diagnosis of childhood cancer, such as sadness, anger, anxiety, among others. Here are some examples of how the psychological effects of childhood cancer can manifest on parents:

  • Children’s treatment journey, financial struggles, and routine changes can lead to a high level of stress and anxiety.
  • The emotional burden and prolonged stress, along with the uncertainty surrounding the child’s health, can contribute to the development of depression in parents. Furthermore, witnessing the child’s suffering and the potential impact on their future can be an overwhelming trigger to the development of depression in parents.
  • Some parents may experience feeling guilty about their decisions regarding the child’s treatment, thinking that they are not providing enough help or believing that they could have accelerated the diagnosis of the illness.
  • Being responsible for children’s needs during cancer treatment can be physically exhausting, often leaving parents with insufficient energy to take care of themselves. Parents need to balance the child’s needs with those of other family members and work obligations, which can be overwhelming and energy-draining.
  • Social life can be affected, as the time to participate in activities outside the context of the child’s medical treatment may be limited, leading to the social isolation of parents. This lack of social involvement may contribute to parents feeling lonely and misunderstood. Following their child’s diagnosis, 96% of parents or caregivers reported feeling lonely, and 79% stated they felt excluded from regular life.
  • Taking care of a child with cancer can affect how parents cope with work-related The pressure of having a caregiving role can limit their time and ability to fulfill their role at work.


Source: Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group, 2022

What is the impact of financial stability on parents in relation to childhood cancer?

Parents of children facing cancer in resource-limited settings may experience more stress related to financial constraints, transportation, lack of access to treatment in remote areas, and relocation for treatment needs, among others. Especially when medical expenses are not covered by health insurance, it is easy for financial stress to arise. Another factor leading to financial constraints is that parents often need to take time off work to be present during the child’s treatment and care at home. This consequently leads to a potential reduction in income and unemployment. Financial instability can limit parents’ access to the necessary resources needed for the child’s treatment and impact their overall ability to cover other expenses unrelated to the child’s treatment.

Families with high incomes may have access to such resources, relieving some stressors related to the financial impact of cancer treatment and access to additional treatment options. Furthermore, high-income families may have more flexibility to take time off from work to take care of their children without significantly affecting their source of income. They can also hire additional caregivers to assist with childcare. This financial stability allows high-income families to cover other expenses and focus on the child’s treatment without financial worries.

It is important to note that regardless of families’ financial situation, all families experience the challenges and emotional struggles associated with childhood cancer. Every family’s situation is different, it is vital to ensure that families from all income levels have access to emotional, financial, and informational support services.

Source: Indian Society of Medical and Pediatric Oncology, 2022

Importance of emotional support for parents

Emotional support can provide a safe space for parents to express and process their feelings, which can help them manage their emotions and process the recovery pathway with appropriate coping strategies. Parents can develop resilience with the proper emotional support, as this encourages a positive outlook and strategies to face adversities. Knowing that they are not alone in this difficult journey can help them feel understood. Emotional support can help them connect with other parents facing the same experience, encouraging the creation of a community willing to support each other. Having a child with cancer can isolate parents and make parents feel that others do not understand their challenges. Having a supportive community makes them feel understood and encourages a sense of belonging. Emotional support validates parents’ feelings and reassures them that they are not alone in this process.

Support in terms of the availability of information and tools about childhood cancer can help parents further understand their situation and feel more confident in their decision-making regarding medical decisions. As they become better equipped with the necessary information and are in communication with other parents whose children have cancer, they become confident in their ability to make informed decisions. Emotional support can also benefit the parent-child relationship by helping them express their needs, creating a supportive environment and improving communication based on trust. This bond is important in maintaining a stable relationship among all family members.

Source: European Journal of Oncology Nursing, 2021

Different types of emotional support available for parents

Parents can receive emotional support in a variety of ways:

  • Support groups: for parents of children with cancer can provide them with an environment in which to share their experiences with those going through similar situations. Furthermore, they can provide and receive useful advice on how to cope with lifestyle changes that may arise.
  • Individual or family therapy: therapy with a mental health professional who specializes in childhood cancer can be helpful for parents to express their emotions and receive specialized feedback on the matter. Therapists can provide appropriate tools for parents to manage their stress and anxie Professional guidance can also help improve communication and support within the family.
  • Online resources: parents can access websites, forums, and online groups to connect with other parents or professionals, allowing them to communicate even from anonymity and distance.
  • Personal support: family members and friends can bring support to parents by actively listening to their feelings and reassuring them that they are not alone in this process


Source: National Cancer Institute, 2022


Childhood cancer can cause many challenges that affect the parents of affected children. For this reason, it is important to recognize the emotional consequences they may experience, including anxiety, stress, burnout, and depression in order to provide them with the appropriate supportive tools. Offering parents a supportive space to share their concerns and emotions can help them find strength for themselves, the affected child, as well as for the entire family nucleus. When parents have a strong support system to help them overcome the conflicts that the situation may bring, they are also more capable of supporting their children. When parents are able to connect with parents in similar situations through support groups, therapy, or online resources, they can create a supportive community where mutual understanding is fostered. This helps parents avoid feeling isolated and misunderstood. Indeed, emotional support for parents of children with cancer is essential for the well-being of the entire family. As their emotional needs are addressed by a strong support network, families are motivated to undergo the path of recovery with a positive mindset.

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